[from the stabenow.com vaults, 2007]
Friday night, between the blog and prepping for my underway writers’ workshop, I worked through dinner, Mexican Carne Asada, the gift of FS2 Lee Schob’s genius in the galley. Naturally, since I missed it, the next day everyone says it’s the best meal we’ve had afloat. Chief Luke Cuthberth went into raptures over the tortillas and EMO Jimmy Olson said it was like eating off the street in Tijuana (I think that was meant to be a compliment).
The next morning, though, I had eggs scrambled with onions, cheese and chorizo served in a warm tortilla. It was the best breakfast I’ve had since I came aboard, and I haven’t had any bad ones. Well. Okay. I happen to actually like fried Spam. (And if that doesn’t make me the subject of a man overboard drill, nothing will.)
It may be impossible for me to describe to you how important food is to the crew underway. Some of these folks didn’t leave home until boot camp, and then suddenly they’re on a ship for three months with 146 strangers, thrust into a completely different, sometimes very uncomfortable environment with no privacy, where you can’t even take a decent shower.
Food is fuel, yes, but it is also comfort, ethnicity, history. One bite of my mom’s potato salad takes me straight back to Seldovia, Alaska, at the galley table of the Celtic when I was 8 years old. Lee’s potato salad is great, too, but if it doesn’t have chopped onions and sweet pickles in it with paprika sprinkled over the top, there is no comfort there for me.
It’s no different for the rest of the crew. Inevitably, this ramps up their judgment of the meals. Nothing I say will be able to convey to you how hard this makes the life of the food service petty officers and the mess cooks in our galley. The physical discomfort is bad enough, the heat and the physical stress of handling the weight of institutional cooking equipment, but that isn’t the worst of it. “No other rate on board has 146 of your shipmates coming by three times in one day to evaluate your work product,” says the Captain, and this sentiment is echoed by every single member of the crew I talk to. For this reason, FSs burn out fast. “It’s why I left,” FS1 Kelly Napier says. “I was on a ship like this and I’d had enough.”
The weekly menus are so important that they are signed off on by the Captain. If there are changes, he signs off on those, too. We take on stores at every port call, although sometimes what we order is not what we get. We ordered game hens and we got mutant chickens. “We made a good chicken stock out of it,” Kelly says.
There is a whole dining social hierarchy involved underway. Officers are not allowed to eat on the mess deck. That is the crew’s space. They line up for their meals and eat at picnic-style tables and benches.
In the Chief’s Mess there is a sign which reads “Chiefs and Guests Only.” On Saturdays the Captain has a standing invitation to eat with the Chiefs, Sunday is the XO’s night, and I (she said proudly) have been invited to drop by any time.
In the Wardroom at two tables in comfortable chairs that slide out from under you when the ship rolls are served officers and guests, waited on by two mess cooks serving and one FS in the pantry. I’m an early riser and usually the first person I see when I go to get my latte (Yes, there is an espresso machine in the wardroom pantry, available to the whole crew. I see FS2 Tracy Mellot in there often, and we are agreed that it is the best piece of equipment on board) is either SN Samantha Crane or SN Alex Trimble, who rise at 5:30am to begin setting the wardroom table at 6am.
Sunday nights the Captain hosts dinner for five crew members in his quarters. “Sometimes it’s TAD (temporarily assigned duty) people,” the Captain says. “Sometimes it’s Chiefs, sometimes it’s high performing junior people. Typically it’s people who don’t interact with me on a daily basis.” I had to go to the first one. The Captain is a genial host, but we were all eating with our pinkies sticking out.
It’s the same food in every dining space. Saturday night is pizza night, made and served by a rotating roster of departments and we all line up for that. “Sometimes,” Kelly says, a little sternly, “departments want to be funny with their pizzas.” Recently one department decided if one jalapeno was a good thing, a gallon would be even better. Further, they hid the peppers under the cheese. “The XO has made it very clear that he wants a minimum of three normal meat and cheese pizzas every pizza night.” What the XO saith, goeth.
The only other time, so far as I know, that the FSs give up the grill to someone unqualified is on Sunday morning, when they pass off the spatula to the Captain. It’s the only time in my life I’ll ever have my eggs fried over medium by someone wearing gold braid.
Suppose we embark a boatload of migrants and suddenly have a hundred extra people to feed for days at a time? We keep extra staples on board like rice and beans specifically for that purpose. “In one case,” the Captain says, “the migrant vessel was seaworthy so we kept a security team on board and had to do carry out. Rice and beans in coolers, big trash cans full of paper plates, jugs of water, lots of Tabasco sauce, and boat ops to deliver.”
I ask Kelly if the mess cooks get comments about the food across the serving line. “A lot of people will tell me they like a meal. They’ll email me, too. I tell them to tell the cooks.” She adds, matter-of-fact, “We have some good cooks.”
Oh. You wanted to know about Lee’s Mexican Carne Asada. “We got some really good beef at a port call,” she says. “It was in three-foot long strips.” She cut them into portion sizes and marinated them all day in lime juice, cumin, cayenne pepper, salt, regular pepper, Worcestershire sauce, chili powder and oil. “Every Mexican spice I could think of.” Didn’t she use a recipe? She smiles. “No. And then we grilled it really fast.”
It sounds terrific. People are still talking about it. Wish I’d had some.
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Author and founder of Storyknife.org.